You have probably heard “it is a watershed event” or “it is a watershed moment”. The dictionary describes watershed in this context as a defining moment or turning point while others think in terms of an event or moment that is all inclusive and comprises the gamut of all things. From a geologic and water resources perspective a watershed represents the area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off of it goes into the same place, down to a single exit point. Watersheds are those land areas that catch rain or snow and drain to specific marshes, streams, rivers, lakes, or to groundwater. John Wesley Powell, scientist geographer, put it best when he said that a watershed is:
“that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked (in intricate, complex ways) by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community” (bounded by the watershed).
The continual cycle of erosive water flowing over uplifting and weathering land has sculpted all landscapes into distinct cradle-like entities known as watersheds, basins, drainages, or catchments. Everyone on the planet lives in a watershed somewhere. Watersheds at all scales are evolved living entities. Their state of health provides a comprehensive benchmark for judging the wisdom of our past and future land and water use. Watersheds literally underlie all human endeavors and form the foundation for all future human aspirations and survival. Belize has a total of 35 major and minor river catchments or watersheds which drain into the Caribbean Sea.
Because watersheds are defined by natural hydrology, they represent the most logical basis for managing water resources. But how can this be accomplished with a resource such as an entire watershed that is so complex, dynamic, and with so much unknown information. The answer to this may be found in an analogous story that Aldo Leopold, a pioneer scientist of the last century, tells about the mountains of the southwestern U.S.
Leopold wrote an essay describing his lack of foresight when he recommended the strategy of removing wolves from southwest wilderness territories for purposes of maintaining larger deer populations to satisfy hunters, only to see the rangeland and other ecosystem elements impacted by the grazing of too many deer over time. In not considering the cascading effects from wolf elimination he stated he had not yet “learned to think like a mountain”. Leopold’s concept of “thinking like a mountain” implies the need for thinking of time and the future in a way that is new to humans, a way of thinking in which understanding, care for, and moral responsibility all expand beyond the bounds of a single life, unfolding against the backdrop of multiple temporal and moral horizons.
The consumptive values of human individuals (i.e., hunting deer) exist on a short-term economic scale, whereas the resulting impacts to ecosystems and species (the mountain) unfolds over the timeframe of evolutionary scale. Leopold looked at the death of the wolf as symbolic of the degradation of the ecological systems because the loss of wolves from mountainous areas suggested the mountain and its healthy condition must live in “mortal fear of its deer”. Leopold’s call for thinking like a mountain embraced the scale-sensitive, multi-scalar, open, self-organizing systems of nature, implying that a conservationist must manage the entire mountain system and not a single species or single issue, reconfiguring the world into multiple scales.
Leopold discovered that his original evaluation presupposed a relatively stable system that would not be altered by the severe (violent) action of eliminating all wolves and most mountain lions, focused only on the short-term situation that created a temporary increase in deer populations and greater pleasure and opportunities for hunters. In contrast, for Leopold to think like a mountain was his identifying the importance of multiple temporal scales and the associated hidden dynamics that drive them. He recognized that his original evaluation of the policy of wolf eradication took into account only its impacts on hunters’ short-term welfare, a too-short scale of time to see important impacts. He learned that total removal of wolves exerted too violent an impact on the system; in the long run, the result was starving deer, stunted vegetation, and erosion of the mountainsides.
Leopold’s approach views a natural system from a human perspective, inside-out, as open systems embedded in larger systems that change much more slowly. Therefore, to build a viable concept of sustainability, an individual or group must involve themselves in thinking like a mountain or a watershed, in order to adequately protect the natural resources in an ecosystem concept that support our socio-economic desires. Leopold’s breakthrough, and a hierarchical interpretation of it, provides the guidance needed to start thinking and talking in new ways. And in this new way of talking scale counts: important human values will be missed – and destroyed – if we confine our concern to short-term considerations and impacts of our policies on economics alone.
Given its suggested emphasis on temporal horizons of human impacts, thinking like a watershed links human actions and their impacts to more than one natural dynamic unfolding on different scales in time and space. Today’s decisions, often evaluated in the short-term calculus of economics, can lead to long-term impacts that change the system subsequent generations will encounter. This form of thinking reconstitutes the world we experience as a complex world, where impacts of our actions unfold on different scales and dimensions and where humans are seen as capable of more and more “violence” in the management of natural systems.
One doesn’t stop thinking like a consumer, however, when one learns to think like a watershed. Thinking like a watershed incorporates our local and day-to-day concerns; but it adds also the awesome responsibility that comes with the recognition that our decisions today, in a technologically powerful society, can have impacts on longer and larger scales. If you want to manage for human goals from within a dynamic, open-ended ecosystem, you cannot look at only one level of impacts, at only one component to which your managerial actions will be directed (e.g. the wolf). Making such determinations requires both good judgment and good science that can be assisted by thinking like a watershed.
When thinking like a watershed, the resource becomes the focal point, and managers are able to gain a more complete understanding of overall conditions in an area and the stressors which affect those conditions, offering a stronger foundation for uncovering the many stressors that affect a watershed. The result is management better equipped to determine what actions are needed to protect or restore the resource.
In thinking like a watershed, sustainable development becomes the key to water resource quantity and quality management, as well as national security, economic health, and societal well-being. Considering a sustainability approach anchors a system of evaluative concepts by organizing our scientific information and our importance judgments (core values) to correspond to a world that unfolds on multiple temporal scales. Sustaining water resources requires a multi-dimensional way of thinking about the connections or inter-dependencies among natural, social, and economic systems in the use of water to achieve economic vitality while enhancing/preserving ecological integrity, social well-being, and security for all. Traditionally, water quality improvements have focused on specific sources of pollution. While this approach may be successful in addressing a singularly important problem, it often fails to address the more subtle and chronic problems that contribute to a watershed’s decline.
Because acting sustainably requires simultaneous multi-dimensional thinking – thinking that covers both temporal and spatial scales for the different sector concerns of economy, society, and environment – to build a viable concept of sustainability, an individual or group must involve themselves in thinking as Leopold described, like a mountain, or a watershed, in order to adequately protect the natural resources in an ecosystem concept that support our socio-economic desires. Watershed thinking evokes dimension and scale in connection with human responsibility, recognition that there are rhythms and dynamics in nature that we do not experience as immediately relevant to us, but which affect our world by changing dynamics we have hitherto taken for granted. Thinking like a watershed, therefore, is thinking about human values as time-sensitive and as produced by specific processes and dynamics that unfold on identifiable scales.
KNOW YOUR WATER FOOTPRINT Do you know how much water you “consume” in a day? National Geographic’s “Water Footprint Calculator” can help you find out.
To read more about the concept of “Thinking Like a Watershed” go to:
Flint, R.W. 2006. Water resource sustainable management: Thinking like a watershed. Annals of Arid Zone 45(3 & 4): 399-423.
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River to the Sea
River to the Sea